MANAMA, BAHRAIN—As international leaders urged Bahrain to use restraint following a predawn raid that left five dead and hundreds more injured, its foreign minister justified the crackdown as necessary because protesters were “polarizing the country” and pushing it to the “brink of sectarian abyss.”
Khalid Al Khalifa told reporters the violence was “regrettable,” as soldiers and tanks patrolled the streets and public gatherings were banned in the capital.
However, the crackdown has only ignited more fury among the protesters who sought refuge in the parking lot outside the Salmaniya hospital Thursday.
Their calls to oust the unelected prime minister and his cabinet have grown to targeting a man long seen as untouchable in this Gulf island kingdom: King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
“The first person responsible for this is the king. He is responsible for the killing, for the attacks on women and children,” said Jaffer Abdulhassan.
He sits outside the hospital, tears streaming down his face. His older brother, Essa Abdulhassan, 57, was shot by police Thursday morning after he joined a contingent of protesters trying to escort ambulances back to those injured near the square.
His body lies in a mortuary steps away, open to a steady stream of people who want to see it.
Demonstrators have used their cellphones to snap pictures of his face – his face brutalized from the nose up by what they believe was a rifle blast – to show their fellow protesters, further inciting their anger against the government.
“They attacked us. They raised the bar that we will now meet,” Jaffer Abdulhassan said in Arabic. “We are ready to throw the king out. We will not stop.”
One of the dead man’s sons interjected: “I was supposed to be a martyr, not my father. Now, I am ready to die for freedom.”
Outside the hospital, protesters chants grew more and more violent. When they once chanted “the regime must go,” they now also shout, “Death to Al-Khalifa,” in reference to the prime minister.
Hundreds of anti-government protesters nervously set up a new camp Thursday evening outside the hospital, less than 24 hours after riot police stormed a public square filled with sleeping demonstrators.
“We’re scared to sleep. I think the army will come back again,” said Ahmed Shuaib, sitting on a collapsed cardboard box that will serve as his bed. “But we cannot hide in our homes. That means the government has won.”
Around 3 a.m. Thursday, security forces surrounded the Pearl Roundabout, where thousands of Shiite Bahrainis had set up a makeshift camp emulating Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
“There was no warning. It was just a massacre,” said Ali Ahmed Nasser, who ran once the police began firing shotguns into the fleeing crowd.
Bahrain’s health minister confirmed that 231 were injured in the pre-dawn raid.
Inspired by the toppling of Arab rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, protesters called for sweeping political reform and demanded the country’s Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip, including hand-picking the prime minister and cabinet.
But underpinning the demands for political reform is a systematic discrimination the Shiite majority says has shut them out of housing and well-paying jobs, as well as restricted their political freedoms.
Protesters are demanding the government abolish a system that awards Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis around the Middle East as a way to shrink the population gap with Shiites, who account for 70 per cent of the country’s 750,000 citizens.
Many of the new nationals get jobs in the security force to further cement the number of presumed loyalists protecting the ruling system. It’s many of these Syrian and Pakistani immigrants who are firing on the Bahraini protesters, demonstrators said.
Yousef Ahmed, 27, was sleeping under a friend’s tarp in the Pearl Roundabout when he first heard a panicked scream.
The police fired tear gas canisters from an overpass overlooking the square, raining clouds of eye-stinging gas onto the thousands below. Peering out his makeshift tent, he saw the forces had surrounded them.
“People started to chant, ‘selmeya, selmeya’ – ‘peace, peace.’ We were all peaceful,” he said.
Then the police began shooting. Thousands fled the square but the police chased them down side streets.
He remembers hearing the call for morning prayers shortly before he was shot. A spray of shotgun pellets peppered his face, striking him in the throat, forehead and just above his left eye. His eye is now black and swollen shut.
But as soon as he can walk, Ahmed promises to be back out on the streets protesting.
“I’m going to return, but stronger. I went to it because it was a peaceful demonstration. But what the police did, now I am angry,” he said.
Several ambulance drivers were attacked by police as they tried to reach the Pearl Roundabout, where they had received calls of numerous people being injured.
Dr. Sadia Al-Ekri, a surgeon, had gone to the tent city on his own to tend to anyone who was hurt. The police arrested him and bludgeoned his face with a baton, his father said. He now lies sedated in intensive care.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she expressed her “deep concern” in a telephone call with Bahrain’s foreign minister. She emphasized that violence should not occur on Friday, when many in Bahrain may attend funerals of those killed or prayer services.
“Bahrain is a friend and an ally and has been for many years,” Clinton told reporters. “We call on restraint from the government, (and) to keep its commitment to hold accountable those who have utilized excessive force.”
Clinton, who has called on Arab leaders to heed the complaints of their citizens, said Bahrain’s leaders should do the same and implement promised democratic reforms.
“We urge a return to a process that will result in real, meaningful changes for the people there,” she said.
Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned Bahrain’s response to the unrest thus far.
“Using tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters is the worst kind of response to a nonviolent demonstration,” he said, adding Bahrain’s government must put an end to the violence.